Group created after Port teen drowned last summer in Lake Michigan will host surf rescue program April 17
A committee created in response to the drowning of a Port Washington teenager in Lake Michigan on Labor Day weekend will launch its water safety education campaign next week with two lake rescue programs.
The Port Washington Waterfront Safety Advisory Committee in conjunction with the Greater Port Washington Kiwanis Club will host a program presented by the nonprofit Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, at the Port Washington-Saukville School District Aquatic Center at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Port Washington.
The committee is encouraging people of all ages to attend the free program.
The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project will present a similar program for students at Port Washington High School starting at 2 p.m. April 17, as well as an in-the-water program at the north beach on June 23.
The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project was formed in late 2010 in response to an alarming number — 253 — of drownings in the Great Lakes during the last three years. Since 2011, the organization has taught nearly two dozen surf rescue classes, primarily in Lake Michigan communities in Michigan and Indiana. It conducted a program in Sheboygan last summer.
The organization’s lead instructor, Bob Pratt, a retired East Lansing, Mich., paramedic and firefighter who is a certified lifeguard, CPR and first aid instructor, teaches people how to rescue others and save themselves in open water surf conditions using the Flip, Float and Follow dangerous current survival strategy.
“Surf rescue is a last resort,” said Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project Executive Director Dave Benjamin, who became involved in water safety instruction after nearly drowning while surfing in Lake Michigan in 2010.
“We’re not encouraging people to go jumping in the water trying to rescue people, but the fact is they’re going to do it anyway, and they have no idea what they’re getting into.”
Developed by the Michigan Sea Grant, Flip, Float and Follow is a strategy similar to the Stop, Drop and Roll fire survival strategy children are routinely taught. It teaches basic, sound survival advice — when in trouble in the water, flip onto your back, float to avoid exhaustion and follow the current until you determine what direction it is pushing you. You then have the option of swimming perpendicular to it or, if not strong enough, continue floating until help arrives.
“It addition to advice, it’s an important ordered task that prevents panic,” Benjamin said. “You can tell people not to panic, but that doesn’t do much to stop them from panicking. If you give them a task to accomplish, however, they focus on that and not their fear.
“I have swam in Lake Michigan for 43 years, but when I got separated from my surfboard (in 2010), I was in trouble. Panic is panic, and I had resigned myself to the fact I wasn’t coming home. That’s when I realized I was exhibiting the signs of drowning, so I calmed down and starting floating. It took me 40 minutes, but I finally made it to shore.”
In addition to Flip, Float and Follow, the surf rescue program teaches participants to recognize dangerous lake conditions and different types of currents, the signs of drowning and beach hazards, Benjamin said.
The surf rescue programs will be the first of several educational programs and lakefront safety measures coordinated by the Waterfront Safety Advisory Committee, which was formed just more than a month after 15-year-old Tyler Buczek was washed away in the Lake Michigan surf off Port Washington’s north beach and drowned on Sunday, Sept. 2. He had been playing with friends on a sandbar on a beautiful late-summer day.
The teenager, who graduated from Thomas Jefferson Middle School at the top of his class and was determined to become an engineer, died just two days before he was to start his freshman year at Port Washington High School.
“After Tyler drowned, a lot of us realized we don’t understand or appreciate the enormity and power of Lake Michigan,” committee member Beckie Perez said. “I don’t ever want to hear any child say he or she is afraid of drowning, but they need to learn to respect the lake so it can be used safely.”
Late this month or in early May, the committee plans to place several life rings on throw ropes on the north beach, one or two life rings at the east end of Veterans Park near a small area of sand that attracts children to the lake and another couple rings on the south beach, committee member Kevin Rudser told the Common Council Tuesday.
Eventually, life rings and throw ropes will be placed on the city’s north harbor breakwater, Rudser said.
The committee will also erect signs at the entrances to both beaches that include information about dangerous lake currents as well as rules, regulations and general information, he said.
Information on lake safety and rip currents will also be placed at hotels and restaurants.
The safety equipment will be in place by the time the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project returns to Port for three-hour program starting at 1 p.m. Sunday, June 23. The classroom portion of the program will be held at the Van Ells-Schanen American Legion Post 82, which is just across Lake Street from Veterans Park and the north beach entrance. The remainder of the program will be held at the beach and in the water. A food stand and water-related information booths will be set-up in Veterans Park, Perez said.
The second phase of the committee’s plan calls for emergency call boxes and cameras to be mounted on life-ring holders, as well as electronic signs that use real-time weather data to warn of potentially dangerous lake conditions.
That system would rely on the creation of a large WiFi hotspot, which in addition to providing data communication for emergency equipment would create publicly accessible Internet service along much of the city’s lakefront, Rudser said.
“We’d basically light up everything from the marina to Mile Rock,” he said, referring to the large rock near the north end of the north beach.
“We hope we can get this done this year, but that will depend on fundraising.”
Mayor Tom Mlada, who oversees the committee and is leading fundraising efforts, said most of the lakefront safety improvements will rely on funding from sources other than the city. But, he and some committee members said they hope the city will contribute money to the WiFi system, which has benefits beyond beach safety.
“Having WiFi on your popular lakefront is really a tourism benefit to the city,” said Rudser, who was elected to the Common Council last week and takes office April 16. “We can say, ‘Hey, our whole (Veterans) park and other areas of our lakefront is a hotspot.’”